JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 21 (JTA) — South Africa’s Jewish community has registered its sharp disapproval of the government’s proposed $650 million sale of tank-firing systems to Syria. “We earnestly request that the proposed reported arms deal be rescinded,” top Jewish leaders here wrote in a letter to South African President Nelson Mandela. The sale “would contribute towards a negation of all efforts towards the establishment of Middle East peace and stability,” the letter added. The United States has threatened to cut off aid to South Africa if the sale takes place. U.S. law forbids assistance to countries that provide military equipment to nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism. Syria is one of seven such countries designated by the U.S. State Department. Aid to South Africa totaled $82 million this year. Officials in Israel, which also has protested the deal, fear that the weapons would give Syrian tank gunners greater accuracy. The weapons, modern firing control systems that South Africa reportedly crafted with the help of Israeli technology, will also give Syria greater night-fighting capabilities. A partially state-owned company in South Africa, Denel, has been exploring the proposed deal with Syria. Mandela, incensed by U.S. official remarks on the matter, has said his country would make its own decision. The South African Cabinet was to vote Wednesday on the sale. If it approves the transaction, it would not take place until at least 1999. Opposition parties have labeled the proposed deal as counterproductive to Middle East peace and South African interests. The letter to Mandela, written by Marlene Bethlehem, national chairwoman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and Joe Simon, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, also stated, “The South African government has always expressed its support of the Middle East peace process and has, on many occasions, stated a policy of even-handedness in the Middle East. The proposed sale of these arms is in direct contradiction to these views.” According to the letter, “We express these views as South Africans in the full acceptance of the concept that the country determines its own foreign policy in the context of its interests and the values enshrined in the constitution.” The South African Union of Jewish Students also condemned the proposed deal. David Bilchitz, an official for the student group, said in a statement that “given the fact that South Africa is in the process of ushering in a new human rights culture,” South Africa should only supply arms, if at all, to “those states which are stable, have a good human rights record and which wish to live in peace with other nations. Syria fulfills none of these criteria.”
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